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Wherever you turn at the moment, you can't escape the buzzword "mindfulness". It leaps off magazine front page headlines and dominates wellbeing features. This is a very positive and welcome development and an inevitable natural response to the relentless pace of modern life. However the reality is that far from being a passing trend, the human desire and need for mindfulness has always existed. Indeed, it has been fulfilled for millennia by the original structured form of mindfulness practice - Hatha Yoga.

What Is Yoga?

Yoga is an ancient science, art, philosophy and physical practice which aims to unite the body, mind and spirit. In the 2,500 year-old classic text Yoga-Sutra, Pantanjali defined Yoga as “chitta-vritti-nirohdah”, or the “cessation of the turnings of the mind” – in other words, the stilling of the mind and achieving absolute focus regardless of any distractions. Modern day yoga is the term used to describe yoga from the 18th century onwards, when  Indian philosophes and beliefs spread to the Western World following the invasion of India by the British Empire.  However, the classical schools of Yoga teaching meditation and self-study were not very compatible with busy Western lifestyles. So a form of Yoga which emphasised physical effort, known as Hatha Yoga or “forced” Yoga, became more popular in the West.  Hatha Yoga became synonymous with yoga generally in the West, even though in reality it represents  just a small subset of yoga practices.  Physical yoga poses, known as asana, were originally intended merely as a means to the ultimate end of achieving “Samadhi”, a state of bliss achieved via meditation.

Modern day practice of Hatha yoga has evolved over the last few centuries from its origins as a branch of Tantric yoga. It emphasises the aspects of Yoga which are more acceptable to Western mindsets and busy modern lifestyles. In particular it focuses on physical asana practice. However, it also includes elements of pranayama (breathing techniques), guided  relaxation and sometimes meditation.  These complementary elements satisfy our growing desire for a form of relaxation and mindfulness to relieve the stress of excessively busy modern lifestyles.

Pranayama literally translates from its two component Sanskrit words, life-force (“prana”) and restrain or control (“yama”).  Commonly defined as “breath control”, it is a collection of techniques designed to intentionally alter the breath to produce specific results. Such techniques involve specific combinations and styles of the three components of pranayama – purak (inhalation), rechak (exhalation) and kumbhak (retaining or holding) the breath. Pranayama has a broad multitude of physical, mental and spiritual benefits. The practice of deep abdominal and full yogic breathing enhances the oxygenation of the blood compared to normal shallow breathing. This fuels the muscles more effectively and improves concentration. Mentally, the slowing of the breath boosts the parasympathetic nervous system which helps to lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety with a whole host of associated health benefits. Concentration on the breath calms our thoughts and can even help to unite the subconscious and subconscious mind.

Our Yoga classes also feature “mudra” which translates as “gesture” or “attitude”. In the widest sense, mudras are body positions which are thought to have an influence on the energy of the body and mood.  The most recognised mudras are hand gestures and are an extremely simply yet powerful way of focusing concentration thereby aiding relaxation and slowing of the breath. An example of a simple mudra that we use in our Yoga classes in Swindon is Chin Mudra, a symbolic gesture of unification. The thumb is used to represent the divine and the index finger represents the ego.  In chin mudra, the thumb and index finger are joined at the tips to make a circle, with the thumb over the index finger. This symbolises both the union of the conscious and subconscious minds and also the surrender of the ego to the divine. It is a deceptively simple mudra which can powerfully focus one’s intention as one begins a yoga practice.

The practice of asanas have many benefits which are physical, mental and spiritual. Physically, asana improve muscle strength and flexibility, endurance, proprioception and balance. Mentally, the performance of asanas provide a focus for our concentration, calming the mind and relieving stress. Spiritually, the ability to comfortably maintain meditative postures is a stepping stone to higher forms of yoga practice such as Dharana, Dhyana and ultimately achieving Samadhi.

The first chapter of the Hatha Yoga Pradipika describes how asanas are integral to Hatha Yoga practice:

“Being the first accessory of Hatha Yoga, asana is described first. It should be practiced for gaining steady posture, health and lightness of body.”

 (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Svatmarama, CH 1, vs. 19)

 As with any form of physical exercise class, a yoga class should incorporate suitable dynamic warm-up, main section and cool-down phases. This has been proven scientifically to be the safest class structure which reduces the risk of injury. For example, it is therefore appropriate to incorporate Surya Namaskar at the beginning of the class as it provides an excellent full-body multi-joint dynamic warm-up. Main phase asanas which focus on strength will tend to shorten the length of the main muscle groups involved. It is therefore important to balance such asanas with those which focus more on flexibility, in order to ensure flexibility is maintained or improved overall.  This will also reduce the risk of injury.

A combination of postures of varying intensities is also beneficial mentally for the participants and enables a smoother transition into other sections of the class such as pranayama and meditation. Counterpose asanas are very important to provide balance to yoga practice. The use of counterpose ensures that opposing muscle groups stay balanced in terms of both their flexibility and strength. This is crucial for the prevention of injury. They also provide mental and spiritual balance.

So if you feel the need for an oasis of mindfullness in your hectic everyday life, look no further than Hatha Yoga and prepare to restore some harmony to your mind and body. Whether you are joining a Yoga class or practicing at home, we can all benefit from this ancient but increasingly popular practice!

 
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How much do you get outside? Looking at the blue sky - wonderful, isn't it? How much do you stop, even for five minutes, and appreciate what you have?

Gather your thoughts and just see the world. See the trees. Listen to the birds. It's good for the soul to have space, quiet and peace.

We all need peace sometimes - we need to find our own calm. That means different things to different people.

Personally I just love the outdoors, the open spaces.

When life sometimes is getting on top of you, the simple things can make you feel happy, and make you feel appreciative.

So just stop, have a look around and breathe in the fresh air.

Just get out there and enjoy it!

 
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Back in February, JB Personal Training had a visit from Radio 4's Today programme.  The much respected journalist and former BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson came to one of our Ultrabox classes to sample the views of our fitness community on the EU referendum.

Four months later, it felt a little strange returning to the hall synonymous with our exercise classes to cast my referendum vote. The award-winning Lydiard Millicent Parish Hall is one of the many community buildings acting as local polling stations.

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Nick's visit had been inspiring in itself.  I have huge admiration for the way he has bounced back from a battle with lung cancer.  I have even more respect for his courage in taking on one of our Ultrabox class regulars!  (You don't mess with these ladies - one of them recently chased a pair of marauding youths for a good mile and a half, very confident she could look after herself, despite being in her sixth decade).

 

There are two equally valid philosophies underpinning the opposing sides of the referendum debate.  The first, used by the Remain campaign, is the belief that we are "stronger together".  The second, as posited by the Leave side, promotes taking control of our own destiny.  

The EU referendum debate has been framed in such a way to suggest these philosophies are mutually exclusive.  Luckily, in our everyday lives, and specifically as far as our health and fitness is concerned, this is not the case.

When it comes to transforming your nutrition and exercise habits, your friends can't do the hard work for you. They can't eject you from the couch and make you take that first step. Ultimately, you must deeply want to, and also be ready, to change.  The initial desire and motivation has to come from within.  When the going gets tough, the voice inside your head willing you to stop will be louder than any around you.  Whether you continue to be a slave to bad health and excess weight, or bite the bullet and become the best possible version of yourself - you are the one who has to take control and shape your own destiny.

Nonetheless, the camaraderie and support of like-minded peers can prove invaluable in improving adherence to a healthier lifestyle.  This is unquestionable, as illustrated by the success of the fantastic women in our JB fitness community.  United by the common goal of improving their fitness and losing weight, they have achieved feats they never dreamed possible, from running marathons to fitting into clothes sizes they haven't worn in decades.  They help each other through the rough times and collectively celebrate their achievements - the embodiment of "stronger together".

Whilst debates such as that of the EU referendum often polarise and divide, there are fundamental truths we should accept from both sides. 

And when it comes to improving your health and fitness, you might get there by going it alone, but it is a whole lot easier making that journey with friends.

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In this first of a series of blog posts on nutrition, we will be begin to explore the three main food groups (also known as macronutrients). We will examine what they are, why the body needs them, and the implications for your everyday eating habits.

Today we are going to start with carbohydrates - the hardest food type to avoid, and commonly misunderstood.

So - what are carbohydrates?  Well, in chemical terms,  carbohydrates (CHO) are molecules which contain a combination of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

There are two main types of carbohydrate.  Simple carbohydrates, also known as sugars, are single units of glucose or fructose (C6H12O6) which have a ring like structure .  Complex carbohydrates, also known as starches, are polymers, or chains, of several sugar units stitched together. Complex carbohydrates are found in potato, bread, pasta, rice etc.  Simple carbohydrates are found in sugar, honey, fruit etc.

Regardless of whether a carbohydrate starts off as complex or simple when it enters the mouth, the digestive process converts all carbohydrates into glucose so that it can be absorbed by the body.

Digestion of carbohydrates begins as soon as the food enters the mouth. As we chew, enzymes in our saliva start the job of breaking down the carbohydrate molecules.

The process continues in the stomach, where the sugar is absorbed into our bloodstream.  If this sugar is not used fully by the body for energy during a short space of time (for example to fuel exercise), then it has to be stored somewhere in the body.

The body will firstly turn the spare glucose into glycogen, a process which involves the retention of a large amount of water. The glycogen is stored in your muscles and liver.  If your glycogen stores are full, you will look puffier (often noticeable in the face) largely due to the water retention.

If your glycogen stores are full, the body has to store the glucose in some other way.  This is when any surplus glucose will be converted into fat.

Most of the fat on our bodies is created this way, not from the direct consumption of fat in our diet. This is a crucial point to understand, as it is the reason why “low fat” products do not help us lose weight.

The same process happens in reverse when we lose weight.  We will burn off our glycogen stores first, then once these are empty we will start to burn fat for energy. However, emptying your glycogen stores is harder than you may realise. If they are completely full to begin with, it can take the equivalent of an entire half-marathon to completely deplete your glycogen. So for most people, in reality the aim is to gradually deplete the stores over a the course of a number of days.  In a typical scenario of sensible eating and exercise at a sustainable level, it may take around a week to get to the point where your glycogen stores are depleted and you start burning significant amounts of fat. However, you will actually lose more weight in that first week than in the following weeks. As you use up the glycogen, you will be releasing all the water stored with it, resulting in dramatic initial weight loss.

In general, the less processed the carbohydrate, and the more fibre and fat also contained within the foodstuff, the longer the process of digestion takes, and the more gradually the energy is released into our bloodstream. This makes it more likely that you will burn the energy released as you go along, avoiding the storage of excess energy as fat.

So how much carbohydrate should we consume? Well, it is definitely not healthy to eliminate carbohydrate altogether, or go on an extreme low-carb diet, such as Atkins, for a number of reasons.

  1. Our brain needs carbohydrate for fuel – carbohydrate is the only form of energy that the brain can use.
  2. Fat burns in a carbohydrate flame. Without the presence of some carbohydrate in your diet, your metabolism slows down and the body is not able to process fat as effectively.
  3. Lots of nutrient-packed foods, such as fruit, contain mainly carbohydrate, so if we avoided all these foods we would be limiting our intake of important vitamins and minerals.
  4. Variety is positive.  Healthy nutritional habits will only be sustained if they are enjoyable and do not become too monotonous.

So which carbohydrate foods should you use as your main source of carbohydrates, and which should you avoid?

In our next nutrition blog post, we'll recommend which carbohydrate dense foods to eliminate, or at least greatly reduce, in your diet.  In their place, we will be introducing you too a whole host of more colourful alternatives!

 
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The Christmas party season is fast approaching and we all naturally want to look great at this time of year.  Reducing bloating can make a huge difference to how you look - and more importantly feel - on a night out.  The good news is that we can significantly reduce abdominal distension with some simple measures which will also contribute to reducing bodyfat percentage. So you don't have to rely on body shaping underwear!

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    1. Reduce your salt intake
      Excess salt consumption will force the body to retain more water to regulate sodium levels, leading to a distended abdomen. Adults should eat no more than 2.4g of sodium per day, which is equal to 6g of salt. However, packaged and processed foods commonly contain such high amounts of salt that 75% of the average salt intake is from everyday foods such as bread, breakfast cereal and ready meals. Reducing processed foods will therefore make a huge difference to how bloated you feel.
    2. Drink more water
      It may seem counter-intuitive, but increasing your water intake can actually help to reduce bloating, as dehydration causes the kidneys to signal to the rest of the body to retain water.
    3. Eat More Slowly
      This will reduce the amount of air you swallow, reducing bloating. It also gives the signals from the gut which indicate fullness longer to reach the brain - so you will be less likely to overeat!
    4. Exercise More!
      Regular exercise stimulates peristalsis, the muscular movement of the gut which moves food along the digestive tract.  It will definitely get your bowels moving!
    5. Eat Less Bread!
      Even if you are not gluten intolerant, bread can be a major cause of bloating. It delivers a triple whammy of high carbohydrate content causing water retention, yeast releasing gas in the gut and (in the case of processed sliced bread) surprisingly high salt content. Cut it out for a few days and feel the difference! Read more in our blog article "Bread: Less is More"
 
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